How the U.S. Miscounted the Dead in Syria

Rights groups say U.S.-led coalition killed many more civilians than previously disclosed in the battle against the Islamic State.

By Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A coalition airstrike in the western Daraiya neighborhood of the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqqa on Sept. 5, 2017.
A coalition airstrike in the western Daraiya neighborhood of the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqqa on Sept. 5, 2017. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

The United States dramatically underestimated the number of civilians killed in the U.S.-led coalition’s assault on the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State two years ago, according to the research of two leading human rights groups.

During the four-month campaign to oust the Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, some 1,600 civilians died as a result of coalition airstrikes and bombing, Amnesty International and Airwars wrote in a new report.

The United States put the civilian death toll in Raqqa at 318, according to a spokesman for the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

The report, drawing on nearly two years of research, also concluded that the U.S.-led coalition was responsible for a significantly higher number of civilian casualties throughout its four-year campaign to destroy the Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq than it had reported.

The U.S. military estimated in February that it unintentionally killed 1,257 civilians in the fighting, which began in 2014. But Donatella Rovera, the Amnesty researcher who led the investigation, estimated that the real number was about 10 times higher. She described the level of destruction in Raqqa as “unparalleled in modern times.”

Amnesty and Airwars used open-source data, on-the-ground interviews, and satellite imagery to investigate claims of civilian deaths.

Their report underscored the challenge U.S. and coalition forces faced in trying to oust dug-in fighters who used civilians as human shields. But it also questioned whether the air campaign needed to be so aggressive and raised the possibility that the airstrikes might have undermined the U.S.-led coalition’s own goals in Syria and Iraq.

The spokesman for the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State said in response to the report: “The coalition takes all reasonable measures to minimize civilian casualties” and conducts a “thorough assessment of all allegations” of civilian casualties.

The report also spotlights the Trump administration’s policy of easing the rules of engagement for the U.S. military, lifting some restrictions that were put in place to lessen civilian casualties.

“Having served on the [National Security Council] staff under both Obama and Trump, it was clear to me that when the new team came in, human rights concerns were relegated to a way-back-seat compared with the new commander in chief’s declared preference to ‘bomb the shit’ out of ISIS,” said Frances Brown, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as an NSC aide under both President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama.

In early March, Trump revoked part of a 2016 executive order signed by Obama that mandated disclosing civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes. The White House said at the time that it was getting rid of “superfluous reporting requirements, requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.”

U.S. military officials say the air war against the Islamic State, which provided cover to local forces fighting the group on the ground, relied extensively on precision weapons that are meant to reduce civilian casualties. “I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, then-commander of the anti-Islamic State operation, wrote in Foreign Policy in 2017.

But the report by Amnesty and Airwars paints a picture of broad devastation. At least 11,000 buildings were leveled in the campaign, according to the groups, which used satellite imagery to chart the timing of the destruction. Amnesty researchers visited Raqqa four times while the operation was ongoing and identified the names of more than 1,000 civilians killed in the campaign.

Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, urged coalition leaders to “end their denial about the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their offensive in Raqqa.”

“The Coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations,” he said.

The U.S. airstrikes targeted insurgent fighters as they moved from building to building in dense urban environments, often using civilians as human shields. As a result, the campaign to oust the Islamic State from Raqqa and other cities it held left a trail destruction, despite the use of precision weaponry.

“The result of this approach negated the promise of precision strike capability, resulting in the city and its inhabitants facing a future little different than if they had been hammered with dumb bombs and indiscriminate artillery salvos,” U.S. Army Maj. Amos C. Fox wrote in an essay last year.

Some experts believe such an approach could backfire, turning local populations against the U.S.-led coalition. “It damages our relationships in the Middle East, and we know it’s a fantastic recruiting tool for terrorist groups,” said Shanna Kirschner, an expert on Syria and associate professor at Allegheny College.

Daniel Mahanty, a former U.S. diplomat who worked at the State Department on protecting civilians in conflict, said he was concerned the Pentagon is preoccupied with addressing media and congressional scrutiny instead of getting the facts straight on civilian deaths.

“We don’t want anybody in the Pentagon understanding or treating civilian casualties and estimates as a public affairs issue. They should be motivated to get a clearer picture … to prevent more casualties in the future,” said Mahanty, now with the advocacy organization Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Brown, the former NSC aide, said the United States and its international partners need to focus on quickly rebuilding Raqqa.

“The needs are staggering there, and rebuilding has by some accounts been slow, which could help set the conditions for ISIS or its successor organization to capitalize on local grievances and take root again,” he said.

“And that would potentially put us right back where we started in the counterterrorism campaign.”

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer